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Use of small, rural libraries grows in digital age

Fred Pace fpace@civitasmedia.com

October 16, 2013

MADISON – Small and rural is definitely the way to describe the Boone-Madison Public Library. Even though the library is small and rural, its contributions to the community are too many to count.


Rural and small public libraries in the United States are community anchors, providing critical services and resources to meet a variety of local needs, according to a recent federal report.


The IMLS brief, The State of Small and Rural Libraries in the United States, provides the agency’s first targeted analysis of trends for rural and small library services.


The report gives an overview of the distribution, service use, fiscal health, and staffing of these important community assets.


One of the report’s surprising findings is the sheer number of public libraries that can be classified as either small or rural.


The report finds that 6,098 libraries (77.1 percent of all public libraries) are small libraries and that overall 46 million people (15.4 percent of the population) are served by small libraries. Further the report finds that city libraries are being outpaced by their rural counterparts in providing access to broadband and e-books.


“This report is a must read for policymakers who are concerned about the health and vitality of rural America,” said Susan H. Hildreth, Director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. “Whether the issue is education, economic development, or access to broadband, small and rural libraries are important communications hubs for people in small towns and rural locations.”


For this analysis, IMLS developed definitions for “small” and “rural,” terms that lack widely accepted definitions when applied to public libraries. “Rural” is defined using locale codes developed by the U.S. Census Bureau for the National Center for Education Statistics to indicate any area outside of an urbanized area or urban cluster. “Small library” is defined as a public library with a legal service area population below 25,000 people.


The brief’s key findings include the following: Of the 8,956 public libraries in the United States in FY2011, 77.1 percent can be categorized as small. Almost half of all public libraries, 46.8 percent, were rural libraries. Their sheer number and broad distribution across the country speaks volumes about the value local communities place on library services.


In FY2011, there were 167.6 million recorded visits to rural public libraries, a number that has increased by 4.2 percent over the past three years, and there were 301.2 million visits to small public libraries in FY2011, a three-year increase of 4.6 percent. The fact that service use continues to increase at these libraries at a time when other libraries are experiencing declines on a per capita basis is a further testament to their resilience and continued relevance to rural life.


There were 49,048 publicly accessible computer terminals in rural libraries in FY2011, a three-year increase of 20.2 percent. In comparison to urban public libraries, rural libraries have higher per-capita levels of publicly accessible Internet computers and e-books. Given the lag in broadband access in rural communities when compared to suburban and urban areas, this further emphasizes the strong role public libraries play in providing access to the critical digital resources that are directly related to 21st-century skills.


For more research, data, and publications of the IMLS Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation visit the IMLS webpage at www.imls.gov/research.


The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. Our mission is to inspire libraries and museums to advance innovation, lifelong learning, and cultural and civic engagement. Our grant making, policy development, and research help libraries and museums deliver valuable services that make it possible for communities and individuals to thrive.


To learn more, visit www.imls.gov and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.